APRIL is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and, in recent weeks, there have been several reports of men attempting to assault school-age girls. There has been the usual outrage. It is horrifying to know these predators are on the loose, targeting children. If not for the vigilance and intervention of others, more children would be victims of sexual assault.
We must remember, however, that there are children who have not been protected and may or may not have reported their experiences of sexual violence. Whether or not children are safe depends on regular citizens. It depends on us doing our jobs as security officers and government officials, having a sense of community responsibility as we drive and walk, and participating in conversations in private and public spaces.
When stories of sexual predators and the would-be victims come to the fore, attention often shifts from the perpetrator and the systems that allow sexual crime to proliferate to the victims and people close to them.
In the case of children, blame is assigned to parents. People ask why they are letting their children walk to and from school alone, suggesting that parents are putting their children at risk by sending them to school. Ideally, all children would be accompanied by adults. No one would prey upon children. They would be able to safely travel to and from school, with or without their parents.
We do not live in this ideal world. It is not possible for all parents to drive their children, or even walk with them, to school. In this version on the world, parents do not all have cars. They have jobs. They work shifts. They do not always have family members or friends to rely on for assistance. Children must learn the route to school and how to be alert. Whether or not we believe parents are failing to protect their children and it is their responsibility alone, children are at risk.
It is lazy to assign blame to parents who do not have the resources to ensure their children are supervised at all times, particularly en route to and from school. By law, all children must be enrolled in and attend school. Still, there are no systems in place to ensure they are safe while in transit, or even while on school property.
There was a recent report of a stranger trying to take a child off campus when the mother saw and interrupted by blowing her car horn and shouting her child’s name. How did that man get on campus? Is anyone allowed to walk through school gates and engage any child? If there is a lack of sufficient measures taken on school property, how much worse is it on the outside?
Asked about one of the incidents affecting a student, Minister of Education Jeff Lloyd said: “Now when you talk about security near the school this happened, as I’m advised some distance away from the school, maybe about 150 to 200 yards, I just don’t know what the ability we have in the Ministry of Education to provide security that far out for our students.”
This is an absurd statement, along with Lloyd referring to the student as a “young woman” when she is a girl. There are clear steps the Ministry of Education should take to protect students.
Extend security beyond school property to cover a prescribed radius within which students walk to get home or catch a bus.
Implement a school bus system for children who do not live on or near bus routes.
Provide bus vouchers for children whose parents or guardians cannot afford to provide bus fare. The obvious starting point is children on the lunch programme and those impacted by COVID-19 and related loss of employment.
Coordinate walking groups with two or more adults.
Teach bystander intervention to administrators, teachers, students, and parents and guardians.
Abdicating responsibility for ensuring the safety of children is unacceptable and shameful. It is not difficult to develop solutions and implement systems.
The Bahamas has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Article 3 speaks to the responsibility of public and private social welfare institutions, administrative authorities, parents and legal guardians, and institutions with regard to the safety and well-being of children.
Article 19 obligates the State to “take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the children from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse”.
Article 28 speaks to the commitment to make education accessible to all children “on the basis of capacity by every appropriate means” and includes financial assistance where needed.
Clearly, the Ministry of Education and the Government of The Bahamas are responsible for ensuring children have access to education, including the ability to get to and from school safely.
We can look to the International Labour Organization’s Convention 190, also known as C190, for an example of the expansive thinking and definitions we need to use in order to centre the rights and safety of people within systems. Rather than narrowly focusing on the workplace as a building or property, it uses the language of “the world of work.” This includes the workplace, places where the worker is paid, places where the worker takes breaks, washing and changing facilities, work-related communication, employer-provided accommodation, and the commute to and from work. In all of these spaces, workers are protected under the Convention.
Applying this concept to education, we see that students ought to be protected not only on school campuses, but in testing centres, attending classes virtually, on field trips, and while travelling to and from school.
Children are entitled to education. They have a right to safely travel to and from school. Children and their parents reasonably expect safety on and around school campuses. The government is responsible for the safety of its citizens, including children. It is the duty of the Ministry of Education to ensure that education is accessible to all children, and that means they are able to get to and from educational institutions safely. As it stands, safety is not assured. Specific systems can be adopted to ensure that students are not bait for sexual predators. That begins with officials understanding that their responsibility does not begin and end with the ringing of a school bell.
IF YOU’VE GOT THE TIME
1. Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Diaz.
This memoir is about growing up in the projects, moving from Puerto Rico to Miami, a family being separated, and Jaquira becoming responsible for her survival and getting into trouble. She wanted love and a family, and she seemed to come close a few times, but it did not quite work out. The memoir jumps around the timeline of her life, but if you can keep up with it, there is an interesting story of a real life that can give the kind of perspective that helps to build empathy.
2. Watch your old favourite television shows.
Many of the television shows being produced now are integrating COVID-19 into their storylines, some more smoothly than others. In some shows, it seems to have taken over the plot. Though it is true to life, all of us aren’t interested in consuming entertainment media that so closely mirrors this reality. If you’re not interested in watching COVID-19 affect your favourite television characters who help you to briefly escape our current situation, revisit the oldies.
3. Bodies of Water by Lavado Stubbs.
Produced by Bahamian filmmaker Lavado Stubbs of Conchboy Films for Only One, in under ten minutes, this short film presents the ocean as home, as history, and as mystery. From the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade to the view from space, experts and practitioners, including Nikita Shiel-Rolle, Christopher Curry, Dr Lester Gittens put the Bahamian ocean in different frames to expand and challenge our thinking about it. Watch it at only.one/watch/bodies-of-water.